RENO " An air tanker that crashed killing all three crew members had made one drop of retardant on a fire south of Lake Tahoe earlier in the day and was en route to another incident when it went down shortly after take off from an airport north of Reno, officials said today.
Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board were expected to arrive at Reno-Stead airport by midmorning to begin searching for clues into the crash, officials said.
The P2V twin-engine plane owned by Neptune Aviation of Missoula, Mont. had made one flight over the Burnside fire south of Lake Tahoe on Monday morning before it returned to the airport, said Marnie Bonesteel, a spokeswoman with the Sierra Front Wildfire Cooperators.
The plane remained at the airport through the day and was being sent to another fire in California when it went down, she said.
"They were fully fueled and did have a full load of retardant as well," Bonesteel said.
Witnesses reported seeing what appeared to be a piece of engine or wing fall from the aircraft before it caught fire and crashed about a half-mile from the runway, authorities said.
Names of the victims were withheld until relatives could be notified. Neptune Aviation officials did not immediately return calls seeking comment.
The crash sparked a two-acre brush fire that was quickly extinguished, officials said. Washoe County sheriff's deputies cordoned off the site overnight and were awaiting the arrival of federal investigators.
It marked at least the third time a P2V owned by Neptune suffered a fatal crash while fighting wildfires on government contract over the past 15 years. Two men were killed when one crashed near Missoula in 1994 and two other men died in a crash near Reserve, N.M., in 1998.
The Burnside fire in California's scenic Hope Valley forced the evacuation of campgrounds, two mountain retreats and about 20 homes on Sunday. Evacuation orders were lifted Monday afternoon, and the fire, estimated at 200 acres, was 50 percent contained Tuesday.